Leading up to the 2008-09 college basketball season, I believed that the Big East was by far the best league in the nation. The only reasonable discussion regarding best conferences was, "Which is No. 2?" This season, it is more of a horse race, with the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC in the mix for the top spot.
Let's address one thing straight off the top. Every major conference is really tough to win. Although there may be degrees of toughness and depth, very little separates these leagues. Ask any coach who has switched conferences, and he will tell you that the league he is currently in is the toughest. Teams in the ACC would have greater respect for teams in the Horizon League if they had to play that league's schedule, and teams in the Horizon would feel a lot different about the world if they had to run the ACC gamut.
There is wide disagreement over exactly what "best conference" really means. Is the best league the one with the most NCAA tournament teams? Or is the best league the one that is most competitive from top to bottom and has the most truly competitive teams?
An example would be the difference between the Big Ten, ACC and Big East last season. The Big East had, by far, the most quality teams in the country. Yet, at the end of the season, all three conferences all had seven teams apiece in the NCAA tournament field.
The Big East, in my judgment, proved to be the toughest, deepest and most competitive league in the nation. With four teams among the Elite Eight in UConn (Final Four), Villanova (Final Four), Pittsburgh (Elite Eight) and Louisville (Elite Eight), five among the Sweet 16 (Syracuse) and six reaching the second round (Marquette), the Big East posted a 17-7 record in the NCAA tournament. Among conferences, that was the best record by far.
The Big 12 was 11-6 but didn't crack the Final Four. The ACC finished with a record of 9-6, but North Carolina earned six of the nine wins. So the ACC had the best team, but the Big East had the best league.
Before the 2009 season, I ranked the conferences as follows:
1. Big East
3. Big 12
6. Big Ten
The league I appear to have whiffed on was the Big Ten, but I said then that I saw only seven good teams in that league and named all of those that ultimately would make the NCAA tournament. But I did not properly factor in the improvement of Penn State and Northwestern. That said, I'm not sure I would have put the Big Ten ahead of the Big 12 or ACC.
To me, the best league is a subjective, moving target. There has to be big-time strength at the top but also really good depth throughout the league. This season, in my opinion, it is a three-horse race among the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC for the top spot.
I give the nod to the Big Ten. It will be a deep and strong league and very well could wind up with the nation's best team in Michigan State.
Here are my top 10 conferences for the 2009-10 season:
1. Big Ten
The Big Ten always has been strong at the top, but the bottom of the league often has let the league down. For too many seasons, the Big Ten has been unfairly criticized for its style of play and the relative weakness of the lower third of the conference. Not this season. There is nary a doormat in the league, as Northwestern, Iowa and Indiana all will be much improved and much more competitive nationally. Michigan State and Purdue are the two best teams in the league, and the Spartans make a great case for being the best team in the country. Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio State will be in the national discussion all season. It should have happened long ago, but the conference should finally win the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, an annual irritant to the Big Ten's reputation. If a team survives this league's slate, it truly will be among the nation's best teams.
2. Big 12
Last season, the Big 12 had the national player of the year (Blake Griffin) and some really solid basketball teams, but aside from a healthy Oklahoma, there were no truly great teams that posed a national title threat. The conference was deep with some very good teams. This time around, there are a couple of great teams. Kansas has the most talent returning, and many hold the Jayhawks in esteem similar to North Carolina before last season. Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins are on everybody's All-America list, and Tyshawn Taylor will be right there with them. Texas will be the other Final Four-caliber team, and Avery Bradley will be a capable replacement for A.J. Abrams. Oklahoma State (with All-America candidate James Anderson), a Willie Warren-led Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Kansas State and Baylor all should be in the hunt for tourney bids. And Texas Tech will be a significantly better team. The Big 12 has really good depth and great strength at the top.
The ACC traditionally has been the strongest league in the nation, and it has the banners to prove it. Although not widely seen as the No. 1 conference in the mythical rankings last season, North Carolina was the dominant team from start to finish. This season, there is no dominant team, but better depth and competitiveness exist. UNC and Duke should fight for the top spot again, but there are question marks as to just how good they will be. Florida State, Maryland, Clemson, Wake Forest and Miami will be good again, and the Terps and Seminoles could be better than they were last season. Virginia Tech and Boston College will be good and very well could be upper-division finishers depending upon guard play. The keys to the league's overall strength will be the improvement of Georgia Tech (Iman Shumpert will be better, and Derrick Favors could be the best player in the league) and Virginia (new coach and new style with Tony Bennett, and Sylven Landesberg, the best-kept secret in the league). The ACC could wind up finishing as the nation's toughest conference if the conference's depth turns out to be as strong as I think it could be.
4. Big East
The easy argument to make against the Big East is that any league would be strong with 16 teams. This may be true, but nobody stopped any other league from beefing up. The Big East will be strong again, but not as strong as it was last season. In 2008-09, the Big East was the best conference, top to bottom, that I have ever seen. In 2009-10, the league will be tough, but not the gauntlet that it was last season. West Virginia, Villanova and UConn will be the conference's best teams, with Syracuse, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Pitt and Louisville as upper-division squads. Cincinnati and Seton Hall will be improved and will challenge for NCAA tournament bids. Marquette and Providence will be younger and must establish their identities. The question for me is how the bottom of the league will fare. Will Rutgers, South Florida, St. John's and DePaul be competitive in nonconference play and in the league beyond pulling an upset or two?
One of the reasons the SEC has been down the past two years has been Kentucky's performance. The past two seasons, you could watch pregame warm-ups and easily see that talent was lacking. This year, pregame warm-ups will look much like they did in the old days, but the talent is very young. From purely a talent standpoint, Kentucky is the best team in the league and is in the top five in the nation. But every Wildcat is a newcomer to John Calipari and his different system. As for the rest of what will be a much improved conference, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Florida and South Carolina should be NCAA tournament teams -- and Ole Miss, Arkansas and LSU could be right there. Alabama and Georgia should be at least competitive in the first seasons of Anthony Grant and Mark Fox.
The best teams in the league will be Washington, Cal, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington State and Oregon. Stanford and Arizona have a chance to crack that upper division, but the Pac-10 will not be as strong overall as it has been. How could it? The conference has been in the Green Room of the NBA draft for the past two years, and this season is a restocking of the shelves. Youth brings question marks, and there are a lot of questions to answer beyond the top few teams.
7. Mountain West
San Diego State, Utah, New Mexico and BYU will be the best teams. UNLV lost a lot of talent, but good young players remain. Beyond that, the league is not as strong as it was last season. The nonconference schedule will be important for the Mountain West in establishing just how many NCAA tournament teams the league will have.
8. Atlantic 10
The top four teams in the A-10 will be really solid. Dayton, Richmond, Xavier and Charlotte should be very competitive in this league. The rest of the league is a mixed bag. Watch for Richmond's Kevin Anderson, one of the best young guards in the country.
9. Conference USA
Memphis was the dominant team during the Calipari years in C-USA and should be the best team in the league again this season. But the Tigers will not run the table in the league again, as Houston, Tulsa and UTEP should be more competitive.
10. Horizon League/Metro Atlantic
The end of the conference rankings is really about the top teams in the league rather than overall league strength. The Horizon League is a really good mid-major conference, and teams protect their home courts very well. Butler is the class of the league, but the other team I like in the Horizon is Detroit, which could make a move this season. The Metro Atlantic has shown some chops the past several years thanks to the good teams it has produced as league champions. This season, Siena will be the best team again. The Saints are led by Edwin Ubiles, who should be the league's player of the year.